That Which Divides

July 30th, 2008

This morning I am struck by an article in the New York Times about testing of athletes in the Olympics, and this time it’s not drug testing. It’ s testing for sex.

According to the article sex testing has been a part of the Olympics since the days of Soviet-era steroid doping. Steroids are a class of hormones, which function by affecting changes in the activity of target cells, and are responsible for modulating physiological processes ranging from sexual differentiation to kidney function to inflammation. The type of steroid with which most people are familiar in the sporting arena is the anabolic steroid, or ‘roid.

Anabolic steroids are synthetically produced compounds that mimic the “male” sex steroids, or androgens. They are commonly used to increase muscle mass, and have secondary effects often resulting in masculinization. Consequently, they have become popular among both male and female athletes in the quest to increase performance level in a variety of sports. In the 50’s-60’s, the Soviets used steroids institutionally as a part of the training regimes for state athletes. It became common to question the sex of the very masculine appearing female athletes, and testing was instated for verification.

Now, steroids are still used, but not in such an overt manner. Many female athletes appear quite masculine, but is it because they take drugs to get a competitive edge?

I’m forced to consider our classification of the human sexes as a binary system. Historically, we have averted our eyes to anything that does not fit the mold, but evidence suggests that human sexual characteristics reflect more of a continuum rather than a neat categorical division. According to the NYT article, the results of some sex tests have surprised even the athlete being tested. Can you imagine thinking that you are female, being raised as a female, only to have a test at an international sporting event tell you otherwise — that you have a Y chromosome?

From the article:

“It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point,” said Christine McGinn, a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine.

There are men with no Y chromosomes or too many, women with Y chromosomes, men and women with the appropriate chromosomes who don’t feel like they are the right sex. A study came out recently that underlines the complexity of sexuality and our limited understanding of what makes a person’s sex, which loosely links a particular gene variant to transsexual behavior. It is becoming more and more obvious that chromosomal sex, while an important part, is not the only factor involved in sex determination. We also need to consider hormonal environment within the womb, genes apart from the X and Y chromosomes, and epi-genetic factors.

The situation is obviously not very cut-and-dried, and the testing seems an extreme invasion of privacy. Maybe, instead of testing athletes to see whether they fit neatly into a competitive category, our system should be changed to reflect the variety of forms that make us human.

2 Responses to “That Which Divides”

  1. bill on July 30, 2008 1:59 pm

    You might find Alice Dreger‘s work interesting. (fyi, got here via friendfeed)

  2. Kevin on July 30, 2008 5:42 pm

    I don’t know about other sports, but proffesional cycling is one genetic freak show. To compete at a such a high level and win most riders have some sort of natural genetic advantages. Take Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain. At the top of his career, Miguel Indurain had a physique that was not only superior when compared to average people, but also when compared to his fellow athletes. His blood circulation had the ability to circulate 7 litres of oxygen around his body per minute,[2] compared to the average amount of 3-4 litres of an ordinary person and the 5-6 litres of his fellow riders. Also, Indurain’s lung capacity was 8 litres, compared to an average of 6 litres. In addition, Indurain’s resting pulse was as low as 28 BPM, compared to a normal human’s 60-80 bpm , which meant his heart would be less strained in the tough mountain stages.[3] His VO2 max was 88 ml/kg/min; in comparison, Lance Armstrong’s was 82 ml/kg/min and Greg LeMond’s was 92.5 ml/kg/min.

    With specs like that it doesn’t give much hope for us mere mortal of winning the Tour de France.

    Stay Cool,


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